First settled in the summer of 1848 by a party of miners from Sonora, Mexico, the place was logically named Sonorian Camp, later shortened to Sonora. The area was one of rich placers; contemporary reports tell of three Frenchmen who took out three and a half pounds of gold in less than three hours work. At a spot known as Holdens Gardens, a party of eight men unearthed the famous Holden Chispa, a gold nugget weighing over twenty-eight pounds. The owners turned down an offer of $4,500 at the time of the discovery. When all the mining was panned and done, the placers had produced over $11 million in gold.
The first Americans to settle in Sonorian Camp probably arrived in the spring of 1849. Among those men were were George Washington Keeler, R. S. Ham, Joshua Holden, Emanuel Linoberg, Casimir Labetoure, Theophilus Dodge, Terence Clark, James Lane, and Alonzo Green. Ham was elected the camp’s first Alcalde and gained quite a reputation for dispensing frontier justice with an unusual flair.
News of the rich diggings traveled quickly and by the fall of 1849, Sonorian Camp was the largest mining town for miles in any direction. With a population in the thousands, the town suffered numerous problems brought on by overcrowding. Food supplies were short and unvaried; the unbalanced diet resulted in a serious epidemic of scurvy which caused many deaths. So severe was the problem, on November 7 of 1849, the camp organized a town government whose first civic enterprise was providing a hospital to care for the sick. Doses of lime juice, fresh potatoes and other items rich in vitamin C helped stop the epidemic.
As no wagon roads were present during the first few years, travel to and from Sonora took place on foot, or by horse or mule. Supplies were brought in from Stockton, seventy miles distant, and during 1849 and 1850 the travel between these two towns was so constant that, “the campfires along the route were near enough together to show the traveler his way, even at night.” When Tuolumne County was created in February of 1850, Sonora was made (and still remains) the county seat, and soon became known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”
The Southern Mines first newspaper, The Sonora Herald, commenced operation on July 4th of 1850, and was printed on wrapping paper. Operated by Enos Christman, he commented on the human variety to be found in the camp a year later: “Sonora is a fast place and no mistake. Such a motley collection as we have here can be found nowhere but in California. Sonora has a population hailing from every hole and corner of the globe-Kanaka, Peruvians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Chilians, Chinese, British convicts from New South Wales, known as ‘Sidney Birds,’ Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutch, Paddies, and not a small sprinkling of Yankees. WE have more gamblers, more drunkards, more ugly, bad women, and larger lumps of gold, and more of them, than any other place of similar dimensions within Uncle Sam’s dominions. The Sabbath is regarded as a holiday, granting men and women a more extensive license to practice vice than any other day in the week.” The camp was apparently worthy of its reputation as the largest, wickedest, and riches town in the Southern Mines.
Sonora became the center of the controversy created when the State Legislature passed the so-called “Foreign Miners Tax” in 1850, requiring all non-American miners to pay a monthly tax of $20. The tax was primarily aimed at Mexican miners, as the white miners had decided that “only Americans had the God-given right to mine for gold, and that Mexicans most certainly were not Americans.” What it really boiled down to was racism and greed.
The tax was deeply resented; resistance to its collection led to violence and bad feelings between the white and Mexican miners. Soon the “Americans” had the rich placers virtually to themselves as most of the Mexican miners and their families left town. Some of those force into leaving turned outlaw and took to raiding, robbing and murdering white miners whenever the opportunity arose. The worst violence took place immediately following the imposition of the tax, during May and June of 1850, when assaults became an almost daily occurrence. Dread and terror prevailed throughout the community and no one walked the streets unarmed.
The Foreign Miners Tax resulted in another problem for Sonora and the surrounding communities. The exodus of nearly two thousand Mexican, Chilean, and French inhabitants cut Sonora’s population almost in half, resulting in hard times for the business community. Business declined to such an extent that many merchants were forced into closing and the boom town suddenly became a rather quiet place. The tax was finally repealed in 1851, marking an end to most of the violence as law, order and civilization settle down over Sonora.
Although Sonora would never again see the dangerous times it once knew, there was still gold in the rivers and the hard rock mines would continue to yield riches for decades to come. In fact, the region became known as one of the famous pocket-mining districts of the Southern Mines, yielding tremendous amounts of gold to those who stumbled across these rich pockets. One such pocket uncovered in the Bonanza Mine yielded 990 pounds of gold in one week, valued at over $300,000. Other mines, such as the Sugarman and the Negro, were known for their pockets of beautifully crystallized gold. In May of 1851, the town was incorporated as a city and was soon an important supply and commercial center, as pack trains, freight wagons, and stage lines all passed through town on their way to the mining camps lying south.
Sonora survived several disastrous fires over the years, the first occurring in 1849 when flames nearly consumed the entire canvas and brush camp. The next major blaze took place on June 18 of 1852. At one o’clock in the morning, a fire started in the “Hôtel de France,” which was located on the plaza facing Washington Street. Known simply as “The Great Fire,” it burned nearly every building in town, only those far enough removed from the flames being saved. One life was lost, a Swiss named Mollier, who was in the Hotel de France when the fire started. The total losses exceeded $700,000. After the fire was extinguished, some rogues tried to jump the land on which buildings had stood, but their vile attempts were thwarted by the posting of an armed guard.
Sonora’s worst year for fires proved to be 1853. On August 17, October 3, and November 2, fires ravaged the town, causing thousands of dollars in damages and once again taking one life. But the citizens bounced back after each conflagration, rebuilding, restocking and carrying on business. Most of the original Gold Rush buildings which remain in town today date from 1853 or after as a result of these severe fires.
Today, Sonora’s location and the activity associated with being the county seat combine to create a busy and prosperous town. It’s easy to miss the historic sites and buildings while driving through town, as the traffic is usually pretty heavy and before you know it, you’re past. Stop, get out of the car, and take a walk along downtown Washington Street. Many of these buildings date from the early 1850’s, making the town a favorite location for film makers requiring an “authentic” western town look. In addition, numerous other historic sites and structures are located on the streets adjoining Washington and can be reached with a short walk.
Sonora is located on Hwy 49.
The Old Town Well was dug at the edge of the town’s plaza in 1848. Fed by an underground spring, it was the camp’s first public water well and was responsible for providing fresh water to the inhabitants for many years. A plaque on the building located at the corner of S. Green and Hwy 49 marks the site of the early plaza and the old well.
The Opera Hall is quite an imposing structure. Dating back to 1885, it once served as the town theater, hosting plays, musical events and community programs. The front of the building is made of brick, the rear and side walls of schist slabs quarried from the hillside behind.
The Gunn House is Sonora’s earliest residence and first two-story structure. Dr. Lewis C. Gunn arrived in nearby Jamestown in 1849 where he attempted mining for a brief time. Largely unsuccessful, he returned to medicine and moved his practice to the busier camp of Sonora in 1850. In November of that year, he bought an interest in the Sonora Herald and soon after began building an adobe house. Built by Mexican laborers, the Gunn House originally had a balcony across the entire front of the second story. The lower floor housed the Herald’s printing office and the county recorder’s office, as Gunn was elected recorder in 1850. The upper floor served as living quarters for Gunn and his family, as his wife and four young children arrived in Sonora on August 13th of 1851, after a six-month long journey from Philadelphia via rounding Cape Horn.
The Gunn family moved to San Francisco in 1861, after which the house was converted into a hospital. In 1899, it was remodeled as a boarding house, afterwhich it was well known as the Rosa d’ Italia Hotel, or more affectionately as “Bisordi’s,” from approximately 1913 to 1955. Presently known as the Gunn House Motor Hotel, it offers antique-furnished rooms, a restaurant, and a rear patio and pool area. The Gunn House also offers a glimpse into the town’s past, which is a refreshing alternative to the faceless, modern hotels found in most cities. Fortunately, it does not stand alone, as most every town in the Gold Country has an old inn or two, and no two are ever alike. Oddly shaped rooms, high ceilings, old furnishings, steam heating, creaks and groans, interesting hosts, possible ghosts. Give one a try.
The City Hotel was a popular stage stop after its completion, late in the summer of 1852. Constructed principally of adobe brick and cut stone, it was built by Alonzo Green and James Lane, two of Sonora’s earliest pioneers. It is located at 145 S. Washington Street.
The Wells Fargo & Co. office originally occupied this stone building built by Emanuel Linoberg in 1856. D.M. Kenfield served as the town’s first Wells Fargo agent. The side wall of this structure provides a great look at one of the early methods of construction used throughout the Gold Country. Stones of countless shapes and sizes were painstakingly formed into thick sturdy walls, which offered excellent protection against fire and burglary. A plaque marks this site located at 87 S. Washington.
The Eureka Bazaar and Cheap Cash Store was established by John Mundorf in 1861. As its name implies, it provided the community with items of all sorts and at cheap prices. The building has undergone numerous improvements over the years. It is located at 71 S. Washington.
The Barber Shop provided tonsorial services to the citizens of Sonora for many years after it first opened in 1859. The building has been remodeled with a new “old style” façade. It can be found at 27 S. Washington.
The Brick Office Buildings which look so neat and lawyerly, were built in the 1850s to serve as an office building and a bank. Still complete with their iron doors, the buildings stand at 21 and 23 N. Washington.
The Yo-Semite House dates back to 1858 and was first occupied by Fred Freund, cabinet maker, upholsterer, and undertaker. Over the years of its existence, the building has served as a hotel, saloon, restaurant, hardware store, and general merchandise store. Located at 49 N. Washington, it was restored in 1973.
Washington Hall was built in 1867 as the meeting place for two fraternal organizations, the Independent Order of Good Templars and the Ancient Order of United Workmen. It is located at 77 N. Washington.
St. James Episcopal Church, often referred to as the “Red Church,” is the second oldest wood frame Episcopal church in California. Construction began in 1859 on a site donated by Caleb Dorsey at the north end of Washington Street. Funds for the building materials were also donated and the building was completed in 1860. The Reverend John Gassman, a native of Norway, served as both the architect and the first minister of St. James. The church was partially damaged by a fire in 1868, after which the steeple and west side were quickly rebuilt. The stained glass windows, unusual barrel arch eaves, and striking color combine to create one of the most original frame structures in the Gold Country.
The Street-Morgan Mansion stands right across the street from St. James. The stately Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1896 for prominent local attorney Frank Street. The United States Hotel originally stood on this site, but was consumed in 1868 by the fire which also damaged the Red Church.
The Burden Undertaking Parlor was constructed during the 1850s for Charles Burden, its facade undergoing changes in the 1930s. It is located at 76 N. Washington.
The I.O.O.F. Hall was erected during the early 1850s. When the Sonora I.O.O.F. Lodge No. 10 was organized on June 7th of 1853, the Odd Fellows found themselves in need of a meeting hall. To remedy this situation, they purchased the two-story brick building located at 12 W. Dodge Street and have met there ever since. The structure has been remodeled several times over the years.
Servente’s Grocery Store is the county’s only cast iron front building. Built in 1856, the words “Sutter Iron Works 1856” are emblazoned at the base of the iron supports which rest on blocks of Columbia marble. The tall front and intricate brick work add to the unique, Gold Rush look of this old grocery store. It stands at 64 S. Washington.
The Tuolumne County Jail held the badmen from 1857 to 1960. The site upon which the present jail stands was acquired in 1857, after a grand jury determined that the previous jail was a “public nuisance.” Another public nuisance was Tom Horn, a miner from nearby Columbia, who on December 20 of 1865, raised a little too much hell in the local saloons and was locked up for the night. Sometime during the dark hours, he set a fire in his cell that resulted in the destruction of the jail and his cremation. Using material salvaged from the ruins, the present jail was built and completed in 1866. Quarters for the jailer were added at a later date to the front of the building and the jail served Tuolumne County until 1960. The jail is now the home of the Tuolumne County Museum & History Center. Utilizing the front room and several of the original cells to house different exhibits, the museum offers an extremely interesting look into the early days of the Gold Rush. Among the exhibits are early photos, books, letters, mining tools, guns, and an exceptional display of native gold specimens that is the showpiece of the museum. It is located at 158 W. Bradford Ave.
The spire atop St. Patrick’s Catholic Church is visible throughout much of the town, a point of gleaming white amidst the tree-covered hills. Built to replace a smaller, wooden structure which has served the parish since 1853, the new church came about through the efforts of the Reverend Father Louis A. Auger, pastor of the church from 1859 to 1867. In June of 1861, he places a notice in the Union Democrat asking for subscriptions of lumber and brick to build the new St. Patrick’s Church of Sonora. Construction began in 1862 and was completed in January of 1863, at a total cost of $10,000. On January 25th of 1863, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany of San Francisco consecrated this church of St. Patrick, assisted by Father Auger and Father Smith of Columbia. The church was nearly destroyed on the afternoon of August 7th, 1874. A fire on unknown origin broke out in a small frame building that stood between the church and the parish house. The flames caught the church, burning off the roof and severely damaging the interior. Everything moveable was saved, but when the flames were extinguished, only the stone walls remained standing. Restoration began immediately and the church was ready for use by the following Christmas. It is located at 127 W. Jackson Street, a short walk from the Tuolumne County Museum.
The Chinatown Monument is the only reminder of the large number of Chinese pioneers who made this section of Sonora their home. Due to their different customs and language, the Chinese were general not accepted or understood by their neighbors, and felt more comfortable among their own race. This gave rise to most camps in the Gold Country having a “Chinatown” at some point in time. The monument can be found near the intersection of Stewart and Lyons streets.
The Big Bonanza Mine claims to be the greatest pocket mine ever discovered. Located in the heart of Sonora, about one hundred yards down the hill from the Red Church, this mine was first worked in 1851 by a group of Chileans who took out a large amount of surface gold. Three partners, James Divoll, Charles Clark, and Joseph Bray, purchased the claim for a pittance in the early 1870s. They improved the mine, sinking a fifteen hundred foot shaft in 1877, and two years later they hit pay dirt. During one week of 1879, a rich “pocket” gave up 990 pounds of gold, valued at over $300,000 at 1870s prices (roughly around $14 million in today’s market). Over the ensuing years, the mine changed hands several times, and continued to yield fortunes to its subsequent owners. Did they get all the gold out before the mine finally closed down? I don’t think so.
The Masonic Cemetery is located on a hill at the east edge of town, on Cemetery Lane. Therein lie the graves of many early Sonorians, shadowed by oak and cypress trees, and kept company by a number of chickens which seem to have the run of the place.
The Dick Stoker Monument, constructed of gold-bearing quartz, was built to honor Jacob Richard Stoker, a Mexican War veteran who arrived in California in 1849. During the early 1860s, Stoker spent a good deal of time with Mark Twain and the Gillis brothers in their cabin on Jackass Hill. Twain would later immortalize Stoker as Dick Baker in Roughing It, which provides a part of the monument’s inscription, “His heart was finer metal than any gold his shovel ever brought to light.” It is located in the Masonic Cemetery.